The late great J.S. Woodsworth, M.J. Coldwell, Tommy Douglas and David Lewis must be writhing in their graves at the antics of today’s New Democratic Party.
These great Canadians led the way in establishing social democratic ideas as a key element in our politics. They did so leading a party – first the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation of Mr. Woodsworth and Mr. Coldwell, then its successor, the NDP of Mr. Douglas and Mr. Lewis – that consistently focused on achieving practical benefits to improve the lives of ordinary Canadians. These leaders and the early CCF-NDP played a key role in the struggle that won for Canadians such social benefits as unemployment insurance, workers’ compensation, old-age pensions and medicare.
Sadly, today’s New Democrats – with more seats than ever in Parliament – look like poor lost sheep who have strayed from their forerunners’ distinguished tradition.
The NDP no longer knows what it stands for, what it should be fighting for or, indeed, what’s important. As a perfect example, NDP parliamentarians brought forward three trifling bills this week that testify to the party’s lack of priority – and lack of good sense.
First, they want new rules to supposedly make MPs behave better in the House of Commons. Second, they propose to replace the Clarity Act with one that would allow Quebec to secede with a simple majority vote of 50 per cent plus one in any future referendum. And third, they’re proposing legislation requiring all federal laws to be compatible with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
These items don’t merit much discussion.
The Commons is not as uncivil as the NDP lets on, and any intemperate speakers seem easily squelched by the House Speaker. Besides, robust debate is vital to democracy, and there must always be room for ripostes such as that of Pierre Trudeau: “My honourable friend disagrees with me – I can hear his head shaking.”
A new Clarity Act isn’t on any agenda in Canada – other than among separatist zealots in Quebec. The proposal is a political ploy by NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair to appease his nationalist base in Quebec. But it’s folly because, by accepting a simple majority of valid votes, the new act could make secession easier.
The proposal to fully implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples may be a political sop to first nations, but it has dangerous implications for our system of government. It goes far beyond Canada’s constitutional and legal duty to consult first nations before new developments go ahead. Article 19 of the declaration requires states to consult and co-operate with indigenous peoples in order to obtain “their free, prior and informed consent” before implementing legislation that may affect them. But since they’re citizens – like everyone else – they’re affected by almost every piece of legislation passed by Parliament. Some lawyers say native Canadians could thus gain a broad veto; this could bring new resource developments to a standstill.
One hopes these loopy ideas will go nowhere. But what’s most dismaying is that the NDP is wasting its time and energy on this stuff.
The Conservative government is neglecting some serious problems that need strong advocacy from the opposition. A few that come to mind include protecting Parliament with a tougher attack on Conservative blockbuster budget bills; backing a comprehensive attack on chronic poverty; demanding a better tax deal for cities; campaigning for a balanced economic-environmental development regime; and fighting to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions through practical solutions, such as expanding urban transit.
Will we see NDP leadership on these issues? I’m not holding my breath. Much like their opposition colleagues – the equally lost Liberals – the New Democrats follow the polls these days and play to the crowd. They seem to think real leadership is for losers. But they might ask themselves why they’re always on the losing side of elections.
Clive Cocking is the Vancouver-based Western Canada correspondent for The Economist.
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